Mar Saba Monastery

Today was “Monastery Day”, as we visited two in the wilderness landscapes just beyond Bethlehem.  Wisely, we began as early as we could to avoid some of the day’s heat.  Still, some of our group were cooked and dripping by the time we returned.

Mar Saba.  Charles had called this the “mother of monasteries”, but we weren’t sure why.  It’s not because it’s the largest one, though it does have an impressively large compound.  It’s not that it was the home to the most monks in days gone by—today, there are less than twenty monks who call this home.  Much of its claim to fame is found in its location.  It is perched on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a very deep wadi (a riverbed, sometimes dry, which funnels water from higher ground to lower; can be the sites of powerful flash floods).  The land around Mar Saba could be called “rugged”, and it’s certainly not the type of place one would choose to live…

Unless you were trying to get away.

This plunged us back once more into the realm of “desert spirituality”.  Yes, I know that the idea might gain popularity if it were “dessert spirituality,” but I assure you that there is only one S in there!

In Charles’ well-refined definition, desert spirituality is defined as a “pursuit of purity of heart in the context of solitude and silence”.  It is an intentional withdrawal from that which is deemed distracting or destructive.  That is the heart of it.  Beyond that, all sorts of slants can be taken, some quickly attractive, some swiftly strange!

Mar Saba, founded strangely enough by a man named Saba, has been in almost-constant use for over 1500 years.  It has connections to Orthodox Christianity and is exclusively open to men.  Today, we went with the women of our group already informed that they would be excluded from the “official tour”, and once we arrived, NONE of us (men or women) were welcomed in.  Part of it was schedule problems, part of it may have been our un-Orthodox-ness.  Waiting, we decided to hike the area for some photo opportunities and scenery.

As we waited, Charles told an interesting story.  Eleven years ago, he came here as part of a sabbatical.  He planned to do a three-day retreat at the monastery, with a letter of permission from an Orthodox heavyweight in his hand.  When he arrived, he was “greeted” at the door by a young-ish monk.  He would not be allowed in.  In fact, the monk was downright harsh, even questioning Charles’ spiritual state.  He seemed less than appreciative when Charles began to point out that the ancient writings of the Desert Fathers indicated that this inhospitality was very much against the spirit that they had sought to live out.  The monk was American and a former Catholic converted to Orthodoxy.  Charles never forgot the encounter, and it stood in line with the less-hospitable-than-usual reputation that Mar Saba has gained over the years with everyone other than Orthodox pilgrims.

We tried not to stew too much on the closed door, but when we witnessed the Orthodox groups arriving and entering, we knew that the “schedule excuse” was obviously bogus.  We knocked again.  This time, we were invited in, men only.

We received a quick tour from a Father Lazarus.  His English was very good, and his lanky frame moved in an easy-going way.  He answered questions with sufficient-but-not-extra detail, as he toured us through their chapel, showing off the art and icons and relics (AKA body parts) of past leaders among the order, all the way back to Saba himself.  As well, he shared about what life in the monastery is like—prayer service at 2:00 AM, communal work and meals, limited access to the outside world, no electricity, and the pursuit of spiritual depth and focus.

A quick visit over refreshments got Charles thinking.  How long had this monk been here?  Where was he from?  Might he look familiar?

He was from San Francisco.  He’d been here sixteen years.  He used to be a Catholic before converting to Orthodoxy.  And he had no idea why we were all smiling and looking at each other!  Charles indicated that they’d met before, without revealing any unnecessary details, and privately called it a reconciliation!

Our drive back towards Bethlehem included a stop at another monastery: That of St. Theodosius, a contemporary of Saba.  I can’t claim to have known either of these names until today.  The second stop was much shorter and much less spectacular: An icon-filled church and a tomb of several key figures from the monastery’s early history.  A few words from our Palestinian guide Elias (who led us through Bethlehem last week), and we were on our way home for lunch.

The afternoon was open, so Paul (a fellow who does “techie work” in Afghanistan) and I headed into Old City Jerusalem to explore.  Alongside some shop-browsing and a stop for a cool drink, we visited the Burnt House Museum in the Jewish Quarter.  Tiny as it is (as easy to miss), it provided us with a fascinating half-hour, mostly in the form of a video depicting the days leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction by Rome.  It created a story-line from artifacts found in the ruins of a burnt home over which the museum is now located.  A spear, stone bowls associated with the home of a priestly family, and skeletal remains are among the clues that describe the horror of that day.  It was really quite well done and well worth the $7.00 entrance fee.  On my own, I’d have never thought to go.  It was Paul’s idea, and I pat him on the back for it.

When we first entered the “theatre” ten minutes before the show, we thought we’d have the place to ourselves.  We had our headphones in hand so that we could hear English over the Hebrew narration.  As the show started, the small room was flooded by an Israeli high school class, surely on a field trip.  “So this is what a Gentile feels like,” Paul quipped.

Quick bus home, quick clean-up, quick supper, and into the classroom.  Our lecturer tonight was a woman who works in an organization trying to build bridges between Jews and Christians.  She and her husband, originally American (she from South Dakota), have lived here for decades and are now citizens.  Besides speaking of her work, she also came as a voice of Christian Zionism.  For any unfamiliar with that label, it centers on a theology that hold that the Bible teaches of a literal gathering of the Israelites back to this land.  This often involves an emphasis on biblical prophecy and a careful watching of the news to see how world events are bringing fulfillment to them, particularly to events concerning Israel.  This way of thought is opposed to what is known as “replacement theology” in which people hold that “Church” in the New Testament is essentially a replacement for “Israel” in the Old Testament, that “God’s people” no longer speaks of the Jews, and that Israel’s role in God’s plan has been taken over by the Church.  You may or may not have given this much thought in your reading of the Bible, but for some Christians, it is a huge deal.  There are all sorts of opinions, and tonight was an opportunity to hear one more slice of the pie represented.  For now, I’ll leave this topic right there!  (Wimpy chicken… I know!)

And now the day is done.  Another early morning tomorrow will lead us to the Temple Mount and down the Via Dolorosa before some free time and another evening lecture.  The days are ticking by here, and two weeks from this moment, I’ll be over the ocean headed home.  I’m bent on making the most of these remaining days, but I’m already excited about a family reunion in fourteen days!

Signing off for now.  Good night.

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